James Madison High School hangs portraits outside to honor graduating seniors

The faces of James Madison High School’s 750 seniors decorate the outside of the school.
Bruce Cotler

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s May 1 executive order shuttering public schools through the duration of the academic year, educators at James Madison High School launched a creative effort to surround the school with portraits of their 750 seniors — paying tribute to the soon-to-be graduates, who won’t have the chance to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.   

“We wanted to do something to make them smile,” said James Madison’s principal, Jodie Cohen.

Seniors at the Sheepshead Bay high school — which has educated dozens of notable alumni including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and singer Carole King — expressed sadness that they wouldn’t set foot in the building before graduation, administrators said. 

“We have been hosting a lot of meetings with our seniors, and hearing what they are saying, ‘If I would have realized the last time I was in the building would have been the last time I was there, I would have treated that day differently,’” said Cohen. 

The project was the brainchild of the parents, said the principal, who lauded the team for rushing to bring the display to fruition.

“I give all the credit to our parents,” Cohen said. “They were turning around ideas of what schools from outside of New York City were doing.”

The project was a team effort by James Madison High School’s faculty, staff and parents.Photo courtesy of James Madison High School

After several days of printing, laminating, and hanging the portraits, the display was finally ready for primetime on May 6 — when socially distant visitors could walk past the outdoor display, which spans the entirety of the school’s frontage on Bedford Avenue and halfway down Quentin Avenue. 

“We kept telling everyone we have a surprise coming, we have a surprise coming,” Cohen said, “because we didn’t want anyone to know what we were really working on.” 

Students have since been visiting the school to take pictures with their portrait, and Cohen said the project has even brought joy to drivers and pedestrians passing by. 

“Seniors have been showing up and taking pictures next to their picture,” Cohen said, “or looking at other kids and saying, ‘I know him, I know her.’”

The 750 posts span more than a city block around the Sheepshead Bay high school.Photo courtesy of James Madison High School

With the help of the school’s alumni network, the James Madison administration is also hosting a virtual graduation ceremony for the class on June 24, in addition to a senior barbecue on August 2 — provided that the pandemic eases up in time.

“The incredible part about the barbecue is we have a very active school community,” Cohen said. “Each department is like, what can we buy for our seniors for this barbecue. People are just being so selfless.” 

Cohen’s message to the seniors finishing out their high school careers remotely is to keep looking ahead to the future — which should be familiar to James Madison students as a popular slogan at the school. 

“We have a phrase that we use at Madison, it’s ‘what’s next,’” Cohen said, “and it’s always about when you leave one point, what are we striving for next and I think that’s really been keeping them going.”